Pablo Martinez Monsivais, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands at the end of the last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

The following editorial appeared recently in the Dallas Morning News:

Presidential debates on international affairs almost always invoke a lot of tough talk, and Monday's was no exception, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used the topic of Iran to burnish their macho credentials.

Negotiating directly with Tehran doesn't sound tough, which may be why both candidates evaded it when the subject came up. But direct U.S.-Iran talks must at least be attempted before war becomes the only remaining option to halt Iran's quest for bomb-grade nuclear material.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Iran and the United States had agreed to direct negotiations. That would mark a bold and potentially perilous move by the Obama administration, which says the report isn't true.

As the Bush administration's chief Iran negotiator, former undersecretary of state R. Nicholas Burns, told The Times negotiations make sense. "What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?"

The regional consequences of a war with Iran would be horrific. Iran's proxies would surge forth to sow mayhem. Oil shipping through the Strait of Hormuz would probably shut down, leading to shortages and global economic catastrophe. There is no guarantee that other nuclear powers, such as India, Pakistan, China and Russia, would support the United States. A broader international conflict of world-war proportions isn't hard to envision.

So, yes, the two absolutely should talk directly. But that must not be confused by Tehran as signaling a collapse of the international resolve that has led to unprecedented harsh economic sanctions. Nor can negotiations become another tool for Iran to keep stalling as it proceeds with bomb-capable enrichment activities.

Direct talks must establish unequivocally that international sanctions will only get worse if Iran doesn't show immediate, full compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions and its obligations as a signatory to the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty. Enrichment efforts and nuclear-capable ballistic missile development must cease, as the Security Council requires.

It is crucial that the United States establish a clear timetable of compliance, and that until Iran complies, sanctions not ease. Iran must have no doubt that its currency crisis, inflation, worsening shortages and rising domestic political tensions are only a taste of the pain to come. The talks should establish that Iran's only hope of avoiding more pain — and war — is to stop stalling and start complying.

Direct talks can and should help rebuild trust and defuse tensions. The Bush administration tried direct talks before, in 2007. Yet relations wound up only getting worse, in large part because Iran failed to honor its commitments. This time, the onus must be on Iran to demonstrate transparency, goodwill and a genuine desire to avoid war.